How to start meditating? Different traditions answer that question differently. In Buddhist mindfulness, you start by focusing your attention on the breath. The Buddha himself gave instruction on this breath meditation in the Anapanasatti Sutra.
According to this Sutra, or discourse by the Buddha, there are steps along the path of mindfulness. The way to begin, however, is to be aware of the breath−or more precisely−the sensation of the body breathing. Meditation Practice could start in many ways, but we are already in the habit of relating to our body (and happily, we are breathing). So the breath is a natural and familiar focus for gathering the mind.
In the sutra, even before the Buddha gives instructions on how to meditate, he gives advice on preparing to practice. In other words, even when we’re doing meditation at home, there is a way to begin.
Last week I was packing boxes, answering the phone, “dressing cushions,” getting holiday boxes ready for the short trip (just across the Stevens River) to our local Post Office to get packages in the hands of Mark, the Postmaster. Taking the walk to the Post Office, the elements reach out to you. In a light rain, if you manage to look up, you will see clouds shrouding the hills of New Hampshire in the distance.
We might think of community as something external to our life, something extra. We have our car, our home, our job, and then we have our neighbors, our coworkers: our community. But community is not just the people who live next door or who work in the same office, it is also the people who pave our roads, who work at the power plant, who grow the lettuce we eat and truck it to the store. Community is every connection we have with the world around us that sustains our way of life.
These days, everyone’s talking about the reasons to practice mindfulness. What about the reasons that make meditating a bad idea? Below, from my own experience, are 10 reasons NOT to practice sitting meditation:
The $600/hour litigator is wearing a custom suit. A smart dresser, and if it helps to paint a picture, yes, he’s from Brooklyn. Nothing much gets by this savvy fellow. He’s talking to me. But right now, he’s not making a lot of sense.
“So Michael, how’s the meditation retreat up there in Vermont? You know, I could use a little R&R. Why don’t you and I head up to one of those retreats of yours and kick back? I think we’ve earned it, don’t you?”
“Oh, I know, Uncle Seward, there is one other thing…”
We were finishing a late breakfast in the Gallery, the small, upholstered room at the Hotel Carlyle, on Manhattan’s upper east side. We were the only ones there. A successful artist and heir of a wealthy family, Uncle Seward calls the hotel home when he’s in the city, which he was this weekend. Ordering his eggs, he also ordered a rye whiskey on the rocks.
Continued from Part I: The next day our van and driver met us at our hotel in Old Havana to take us to the south side. On the way there was the usual stream of vintage American cars from the 1950’s. (Their original motors long gone, these cars were now powered by engines from Hyundai and Mercedes.) The traffic included noisy diesel trucks, and along the shoulder of the busy boulevard, the occasional donkey pulling a wooden wagon full of people and goods. Near our (relatively) posh hotel in Old Havana, animal powered carriages ferried only tourists.
After a 20-minute ride, we turned down a dusty neighborhood street with chunks of pavement missing. Ernesto asked a neighbor and then a passerby for directions. After a couple more turns, the van pulled up in front of small iron gate in the middle of a nondescript cement wall. Our driver, impassive until now, looked concerned. He let Ernesto know that he would stay with the van.
Stepping Through a Gate
Led by Jeanine, we piled out and walked through the narrow opening, the gate creaking behind us. To our astonishment, beyond the wall was a small leafy Zen style garden and pool. Various bonsai were on display. There was a feeling of calm and tranquility. Ernesto surveyed the scene in disbelief.
The Sensei, smiling, was standing in the garden in front of the entrance to the dojo. Serene, with a modest air about him, he was average height, but broad, dressed casually in an open shirt and jeans. “Sensei’s chest is a brick wall,” I thought, reflecting on a sense of immovability. A couple of his students in their late teens or early twenties looked on with curiosity.
We were led inside the dojo, a simple concrete room with a big mat secured by wire hooks into a cement floor. On the walls hung Japanese calligraphy, pictures of Japanese lineage figures, and wooden practice swords. High, unprotected openings in the cement let the light in.
The Story of a Dojo
“This house used to be abandoned,” the Sensei began explaining in Spanish. Ernesto, useless as a guide, slipped into the role of translator. “We asked for permission from the city to make it a dojo. I wanted to offer the kids in the neighborhood something. In this dojo we don’t teach sports martial arts, we teach mind martial arts — the way of Bushido. We want the young people to learn humility, honesty, courage, and decency. From the perspective of our tradition, the true Way has nothing to do with arrogance or egotism.”
As he spoke, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Jeanine was beaming. This distinction between “sport training” and “mind training” was familiar to us from the late Shibata Sensei, who taught Kyudo, or Japanese Archery, to the Shambhala community.
In response, Jeanine shared our appreciation for Shibata Sensei and the love and respect Shambhala’s founder, Chogyam Trungpa had for him as well as the Zen Master Suzuki Roshi. Chiming in, I added that our own teacher, Sakyong Mipham, was a student of Shibata Sensei himself, and that in Shambhala we practiced not only Kyudo, but also Ikebana or the Way of Flowers, and Cha-Do or the Way of Tea. At the center of our discipline, I added, was Zazen, or sitting meditation. You could feel Sensei listening as our words were translated.
In his hands, the Sensei was holding a book. In response, he held it up. “Cuban scholars have made connections between the philosophy of the Cuban poet/revolutionary Jose Marti [the ‘apostle’ of an independent Cuba–ed.] and the code of Bushido,” he explained earnestly. “Marti’s dedication to others is what I want to teach the young people here.” It was clear that the Sensei traced his lineage both to Jose Marti, as well as to the Japanese immigrants who had brought martial arts to Cuba.
Time for an Offering
As it came time to leave, I overhead my wife asking herself, “what can we offer?” Suddenly, “I know! I know!” From her purse Jeanine pulled out a small red booklet entitled The Six Ways of Ruling. “Michael, you should give him this.”
Cueing Ernesto that a presentation was coming, I held up the booklet toward Sensei in a gesture of offering. “In the Shambhala tradition,” I began, “the practitioner is understood to possess inherent dignity, like a king or queen. There is a Way of uncovering this dignity which we call the Path of Warriorship.”
“Warriorship in this case is not about waging war, but about rulership, riding the energy of life. The practitioner of this path embraces rulership out of dedication to others. The six ways of ruling are: benevolent, true, genuine, fearless, artful and rejoicing.” I named each quality, pausing to give Ernesto a chance to find the correct word in Spanish, adding as I went, a short explanation for each one.
Hearing the 6 Ways of Ruling, the Sensei was smiling broadly. In this moment we realized our kinship. As I presented the booklet, Jeanine apologized for its worn corners.
“The fact that it’s worn means it has your soul in it—making it an even more significant gift,” the Sensei replied with feeling. As we were leaving, Jeanine asked if there was something the dojo could use from Samadhi Store, pointing out that we carry temple gongs and other products from Japan.
“The thing we could use the most is for you to return and visit us again,” said the Sensei with warmth and sincerity. We said our goodbyes, pledging a return visit. On our way out, Jeanine made an offering of pesos to the upkeep of the dojo, bowing as she placed an envelope on the alter. The iron gate clanking behind us, we were greeted by our van and driver, who looked both happy to see us and ready to be moving on.
In Havana we never had a kosher meal or visited a synagogue. The Buddhist Meditation center did indeed appear not to exist. But by following instincts, at the end of a broken and dusty street on the south side of town, we discovered a Sensei practicing and teaching the path of warriorship. This chance encounter was also one of the ways we met the requirements of our license to visit Cuba.
“So, today you will enjoy a kosher lunch, followed by a trip to the synagogue…” our guide looked at us blankly, waiting for a reaction.
Jeanine Greenleaf, the President of Samadhi Cushions and I, her husband, were in Cuba, traveling under the auspices of Shambhala. Our granddaughter Camille, a high school senior with four years of Spanish, would serve as a translator.
Jeanine’s daughter Isabelle and our younger granddaughter Sophie would join us from France. As French citizens, they didn’t need a special purpose to visit Cuba, but they were open to the requirements of our fact-finding journey to the communist country.
“A kosher meal and a trip to the synagogue?” Jeanine asked quizzically. Our van had just pulled up to the restaurant; presumably the kosher meal preparations were already underway.
“Yes, that’s what’s on the itinerary.” Said Ernesto, again without expression.
The day before, at the charter desk in Miami, our boarding passes for the hour-long flight to Havana had been stamped “Documents in Order”. Our General License—the one that allowed us to travel to Cuba legally—identified our purpose for the trip. The letter from the secretary of our organization stated that we would be exploring how Buddhism could impact the historically Catholic population.
Evidently, the tour company providing the van and guide had misread our letter. It turns out there is a small Jewish community in Havana. Jeanine smiled. “No, not Jewish—Buddhist. We are Buddhists in the Shambhala Tradition. So we don’t require a kosher meal or a trip to the synagogue. While that might be interesting, isn’t the goal of our trip. Rather than a synagogue, we need to visit a meditation center—a Buddhist meditation center.”
“Ah,” said Ernesto dispassionately. He looked up to think while scratching a day old growth of a beard. “That could be hard, I don’t think there is one.” Ernesto was a smart, urbane, educated, well-read and articulate young man of 30, with excellent English, French and Italian. As an employee of the tour company, he was also a government worker. The government owns all of the tour companies in Cuba.
“Let me make some phone calls, I will find out,“ he offered hopefully. We enjoyed a lunch of fresh fish at the restaurant, which was half-independent and half government-owned, not an atypical arrangement in the communist country. After lunch, Ernesto informed us that there was a group practicing “Vi-Vi-pa…” I finished the word for him, “Vipashyana?”
“Yes, that’s it. They meet every other Sunday in Havana. But they are not meeting this Sunday.” (In the intervening Sunday, the one upcoming, the venue hosted a yoga group.) Vipashyana would have to wait.
After lunch we stopped by a community arts center in the neighborhood. Once inside, Jeanine struck up a conversation with one of the artists whose work was on display. Camille assisted in translation. Jeanine explained our quest to visit the apparently non-existent Buddhist Meditation center in Cuba.
“Well, I’m a member of a Dojo. My son goes too. You should visit and meet the Sensei. Come tomorrow.” The painter, a lively gentleman with bright blue eyes, wrote out his cell number and handed it with some explanation to Ernesto.
Back in the van, Ernesto looked anxious. The “Dojo” (pronounced “doyo”) was on the south side of Havana in a poor neighborhood. “The Sen-sei?” He asked, pronouncing the word for the first time. “I’m not sure if we can go there.” (Later we found out that our guide was required to report and explain all tour changes to his supervisor.)
“We are going there,” Jeanine declared, ignoring Ernesto’s hesitation. Jeanine had a good feeling about the painter, who was warm and open. “The Sensei saved my life,” he had shared, hinting at story that would go untold.
I have two teenage granddaughters. Recently, one of them found herself in trouble. Then she lied about it. Her trouble deepened. Fully acknowledging the mysteries of transitioning to adulthood, as well as the hypocrisy of those who claim to utter only the truth, I nevertheless felt moved to put in a plug for things as they are.
There is much that could be said, but no time to say it. For all of us, choices between the truth and something else are being made everyday. “Life will go better for you if you tell the truth,” I say to my granddaughter with urgency, knowing full well that dictums from an old man might not be enough.
Inspired by the wisdom and example of my meditationteachers, and to combat the notion that the truth, like a lie, could possibly be avoided, I offer here seven reasons to tell the truth.
1. The truth can help. To quote Will Rogers, “When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.” Lies require more lies, more digging. You may not want anyone to know you’re in a hole, but it’s hard to overcome in private what you deny in public. To climb out of a pit, you have to admit you’re in one. If a part of you is sunk, a part of you isn’t. That’s the part that can quit digging. If you’re down, telling the truth is like asking for help, when you do, options present themselves.
2. The truth plugs you in. The ‘well-connected’ aren’t diminished by being part of something. When you understand the ways in which we all connect, you aren’t afraid to share your thoughts and feelings with others. If you don’t share, you unplug from the community around you. Sharing brings trust. Trust brings communication and exchange. Exchange makes the world go around.
3. The truth is a lesson. Our mistakes teach us. How else are you supposed to learn? If you are afraid to admit mistakes, you have failed to recognize their value. Not that you have to wear every failing on your sleeve. But by admitting the truth, you will begin to know the reasons for the choices you’ve made. When you understand what drives you, you will see how decent and good you really are. That is a lesson worth learning.
4. The truth moves you. The truth may not be what you think it is. When you share your story, it is the story of the moment. Once you tell it, truth turns a page. Lies might have been true once, but things change. Today’s truth might be hard, but if you can’t tell it, you have no way to get to tomorrow’s. Without the truth, you are stuck. You have nowhere to go.
5. The truth is worth sharing. It doesn’t just belong to you. If it did, it would be your truth, in the same way that your car is your car. Who cares about your car? The whole truth, like the earth or the sky, is something we share. It is a conversation, maybe funny or sad, sometimes both. It can be simple and may not be personal. Lies are only yours, a complication. When you try to share them, no one wants to hear.
6. Talking straight means you care. When you care about someone, you make an effort. Willing to be yourself, you show others that it’s OK for them to be who they are, to say what they feel, to relax. They might not go for the idea right away, but they will appreciate and remember you for it. Telling the truth is hard work. When you care about people, you can work hard for them.
7. The truth loves life. The smell of garlic, the taste of ice cream, the cut of a well-made dress, the smile from a sweetheart. No one lies about the things they really love. To embrace even a small lie is to turn away from appreciating this one moment that is being alive. Life is big and rich. Lying makes it smaller and poorer. To love your life is to tell the truth about it.
Postscript: I end this blog post with less certainty than I began. While convinced that the truth is the “way to go,” I am wary of clinging to principle. In my own experience, the truth is “what works.” How? By waking us up. The truth helps us see ourselves and let’s others see us. In short, by invoking the heart in both the speaker and listener, the truth invites the warmth of awareness. Why can’t the truth be avoided? Well, it can. But sooner or later, as the saying goes, truth will out. How come? Maybe because somehow, somewhere, for some reason, the truth is something all of us already know.
Nat King Cole’s 1943 breakaway hit Straighten Up and Fly Right is based upon a folk tale his preacher father liked to tell. In the story, a buzzard offers to take fellow animals for a ride, only to toss them to their death once airborne. The buzzard then dines on the carrion. After watching his jungle friends take the ride and bite the dust, a monkey hops on. Hip to the buzzard’s plan, the monkey employs his tail to choke the buzzard before the scavenger can do him in. In the song, it is the monkey who is admonishing the buzzard to “straighten up and fly right.”
While the crooner’s (catchy!) song reminds us about the perils of “riding” others, the question of who is in charge, of who is riding, and who is being ridden, is applicable to the relationship with our own mind and body. There is a kind of anxiousness, a choke-hold even, around our mental and physical responses to the ride that is life. Ironically, while modern culture embraces discursiveness and a casual posture as evidencing freedom, these both can reflect the weight of subjugation, of “being ridden”.
In his classic sculpture, Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker appears crushed by the thoughts he shoulders. His fist supports the chin of his over-cluttered head, lest it drag the rest of him to the ground. My teenage granddaughter, now obsessed with her weight and enlivened by cravings, bends over her plate of pasta primavera without looking up. Clutching his iPhone, her trendy friend is hunched over the device like a mystic caught in prayer. My action-oriented buddy leans forward as he walks, as if angling toward his responsibilities will help him meet them a little sooner. Over 55 now, with faltering eyesight and (blessed/cursed) with a portable laptop, I too am starting to hunch even as I type.
Meditation practice is about letting the body and mind enjoy freedom from the tyranny of thought. The upright posture of meditation reflects the courage of a person willing to engage this vista. In meditation, the erect spine straightens the channels that link the body’s chakras or energy centers. This allows for the ‘yoga’ or ‘union’ of an unburdened mind and body. The result is a discovery of a natural clarity–leading to insight.
Interestingly, the physicality of merely sitting upright can be a challenge. Between meditation sessions, if your thoughts (or your linguini) have literally managed to bend you to them, your next practice session will bear the impact of this training. It’s axiomatic that posture effects physiology. There is something healthy about sitting up straight. An MD quoted on the website sponsored by Oprah says what your Mom may have already intuited when she told you to straighten up: “Poor posture actually accelerates the aging process, it lowers lung capacity, interferes with digestion, and puts abnormal pressure on the spine.”
Meditation practice begins with paying attention to one’s own mind and body. This is like the instruction on the airplane that has you donning your own oxygen mask before working to help others with theirs. Although it is not always obvious, our willingness to face our own experience is powerful and has a impact on those around us. As meditation masters have pointed out, a lot of the power of practice comes from sitting up straight and simply being aware as we inhabit space. In a word, posture is power.
This fact is borne out in studies by Harvard psychology professor, Amy Cuddy. In her TED talk featured on NPR, Professor Cuddy reported on the phenomena of “Power Poses”. Her study revealed that, “open, expansive, space-occupying” postures lead to measurable changes in hormone levels, self-confidence, how others see you, and predictably, performance.
Can we pause here to let our posture be open and expansive? Your head can float up as if pulled by a string, gently tuck in your chin. Relax your jaw. Pull your shoulders back a bit and let your torso expand. There, you are now in the posture of meditation. All you have to do next is find your spot and take your seat. Meditation per se is a formality.
In Tibetan, one of the words for meditation translates as “bringing into reality.” Buddha and Mom understood something. Whether you are a yogi or a stockbroker, what you do with your mind and body in each moment will define your reality and the life you live. By that measure, everything is meditation. Every moment is an opportunity to practice straightening up. Whether we are in the meditation hall or at Starbucks, we don’t have to ridden by thoughts any more than we are required to ride them.
Wherever you are, when you feel your mind and body being pushed or pulled down by the invisible currents of thoughts that would ride or be ridden, gently upright yourself. Breathe and appreciate the space of the moment. And then what? Straightening up, you may discover a new strength and clarity. You may find in the expanse of that moment that there is freedom, and in that freedom there is more room to move, or as Nat King Cole would have put it–to “fly right.”